Last week I saw her in the woods. I’d spent the day in copyedits for a client, and went for a walk to clear my head. I took the path behind my house, into the stands of beech and maple. The autumn wind stirred, so that golden leaves rustled above and all around me. Gold fell through the air and lined the path at my feet. And then she was suddenly there, blocking my way. She smiled, showing white pointed teeth. She wore a dress of rustling flame, and red leaves and berries were threaded through her golden hair. Her eyes were the fading green of summer’s last days.
My heart went still; I couldn’t breathe. And then my heart restarted, thudding hard.
“No,” I told the Queen of the Hunt. It was a bare whisper, not the brave mother’s defiance that I wanted. She laughed.
Each fall the Hunt returns. They take our children, the ones aged twelve to sixteen. They give our children the winds to ride, and lead them storming across the midnight sky.
No one in town speaks much of it. We say nothing when our kids start going to bed early, all on their own. We rouse them, still dazed, from sleep, and they drag themselves through the day. Teachers do not scold as students yawn and rub their eyes, as they slump and fall asleep at their desks.
We parents are tired, too, from nights pacing or standing outside bedroom doors, waiting for our kids to come back.
Amy sits blinking at breakfast. I’ve made scrambled eggs, gooey with melted cheese, and browned sausages and toast. She picks at it. It’s still dark outside, and the kitchen light casts harsh shadows across her face. I want to fill her up with food, to weigh her thin body down. To tether her to this earth. Not to let her fly away.
Rick downs black coffee and kisses me quickly on the lips.
He doesn’t usually hug Amy good-bye. Somewhere along the way we’ve all dropped the easy hugs and cuddles of childhood. He doesn’t hug her now. But he reaches out and ruffles her hair. Her eyes focus, and she gives him a faint smile.
He leaves and it’s just the two of us, she and I.
How was it last night? I want to ask. Did you chase a flock of geese? How close did you come to the stars? Did you think of your father and me at all? Was it cold?
I don’t ask. My own mother never asked me.
“Take the heavier jacket,” is all I say. She nods and shrugs on her thick padded coat. She walks out to the bus stop, through the dark.
It was always cold; I remember that. But I also remember that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because the Wild Ones called and the winds came. I spun like a leaf across the sky. My classmates were with me, all of us shrieking and diving and laughing. The cold poured into me and through me. My bones dissolved into darkness and air. The Wild Ones sang, and their song became part of me too: heartbeat and breath. The Great Hounds strained at their leashes and yelped, huge eyes glowing like campfires. She gave the signal. The Hounds raced forward, howling, and we came behind.
Everything fled before us; the tree-tops bent under our passage, and animals on the ground rushed from their hiding places: deer and rabbits and foxes, stray dogs and cats. Geese honked, owls panicked, ducks stirred on the water, while the songbirds went silent. We chased migrating flocks across the sky.
On and on and on. Wind and wildness and pure delight. I don’t remember leaving the Hunt; I don’t recall falling back to sleep in my own bed. But I must have. Each morning I woke back in my own room, under warm covers. My mother’s hand on my shoulder, her voice saying my name.
I came back each time. But not everyone does.
Every so often, a child rides with the Hunt and never comes back.
After Amy leaves, I spend the morning cleaning. I vacuum the living room, dragging the couch forward to get at the layers of dust beneath. I wipe down the shelves and mantel. I mop the floor and light a vanilla-scented candle. I make everything warm and cozy, clean and safe.
The wind sings outside. Golden leaves whirl past the window. I watch the beech trees trembling, and wonder if I see a richer gleam of yellow among them. Or the flicker of a dress that rustles with red and orange flame.
“No,” I tell her again. Queen of the Wild Ones, Queen of the Hunt. I won’t let her take my child. I won’t.
Rick holds me during these chilly nights. “She’ll be fine,” he murmurs into my hair. “Amy’s got a good, level head—just like her parents.”
But I think, That’s not enough.
No one can predict it. There are years when no one is taken, and then years when multiple children are lost. Loners and troubled kids, quiet ones, forgotten ones. But also the popular kids, the golden ones, the cheerleader and sports star, the honor student and student council president. The kids who seem at home in the world, with loving family and friends.
It’s always a choice, it’s said. The Wild Ones take no one against their will. The Queen chooses a special few, for reasons that only she understands. She extends her invitation. Some accept.
Don’t you remember? I want to ask my husband. What it felt like to race the Hounds across the sky? To be part of that autumn storm?
But if I ask, he’ll claim not to remember. Just as so many adults claim. He never speaks of his days in the Hunt.
The wind whistles outside our bedroom window, and my skin prickles. I don’t tell Rick that I’m not as level as he thinks. I don’t mention the dreams I used to have, long after they should have stopped. Or that I met the Queen in the woods this season.
His breathing deepens and slows. I lie next to him, listening. Amy is out there, flying in the night. I think I hear voices, singing.
I throw myself into homemaking.
I turn down editing work a client offers. Instead, I chop vegetables and bake bread. I braise meat for stews. I try to make our home a beacon of warmth and light. An anchor for Amy. Something to call her back each night.
Beef bourguignon, lasagna, a pan of brownies. Lentil soup, spaghetti, and chicken pot pie. Her favorite dishes. The Wild Ones eat nothing but starlight and air, dead leaves and frost. They hunt only for the thrill. How could their food compare to that prepared with a mother’s love?
Amy comes home from school, and I lure her to the kitchen table with mugs of hot chocolate, cookies, a bacon sandwich. We sit together in the autumn sun.
Once she told me everything. Once she was a toddler who babbled incessantly, a stream-of-consciousness narration, so that I sometimes yearned to pull a pillow over my head. And then she was a child, an eager schoolgirl who came to my study each day after school to spill all her thoughts. I knew the names of her friends and who was fighting with whom. I knew the jokes she’d heard that day. I knew which passage in a book had captured her heart.
I don’t know these things now.
I ask about her day and she answers, but so much goes unsaid. Her eyes drift past me, fixed on another world.
It’s normal, everyone says. Our children become quiet and absent in mid-autumn. But they come back.
Most of them come back.
I want to talk to her. Really talk. But the spell of these days is upon us both, and my throat closes when I try. I want to warn her of the Queen’s offer. I want to tell her, Don’t say yes. I want to say, Stay with me. But my thoughts slip and my mind fogs. The words dry on my lips.
I ask about her English homework instead. She answers, and even looks me in the eye. She finishes her sandwich. The light is shining on her light brown hair. Then she remembers something the English teacher said, a terrible pun of the type that she knows will make me groan, so she tells me and she’s laughing and I groan and laugh, too. She’s back, and I think it has to be enough—sunlight, laughter, shared food at the table. It has to be enough to keep her here.
This world is enough.
That’s what I think when I’m alone in the house and I hear the Queen’s voice from the woods. It’s what I told myself for years of early adulthood, after the dreams finally stopped—when I’d left this town and went backpacking through Europe; when I studied in London; when I stood on a beach in Mexico under the moonlight, alone, watching the waves as my friends back at the hotel bar got drunk and flirted with strangers. It’s what I felt when I met Rick. And it’s what I tell myself now, when the wind rises and the old restlessness stirs. This world is enough. I don’t need anymore. Amy doesn’t need anymore. She has to know that.
I run to the woods to find her.
I take the path behind my house, down the hill. The trees close around me.
I reach the spot where I last saw her. Beams of sunlight slant through golden leaves.
I catch my breath, and all the trees rustle softly.
What do I have to offer? What can I give the Wild Queen? I have no jewels, no ring or necklace, to surpass her gold. I know no secret names. What bargain can I strike for my daughter’s safe passage? What do I have?
Please, I think silently at her. Please.
Amy’s come home safely three seasons in a row. But that’s no guarantee. It’s only more dangerous as our children get older. The pull grows stronger. She’s fifteen now. More children are taken at this age than any other.
And the Queen has been watching our house. I’ve felt her. I saw her in these woods, for the first time in decades. It means something. She wants something.
“Not Amy,” I say aloud.
She doesn’t show herself, but the wind stirs in response. The wind strengthens. Branches lift, and trees fill with the sound of the sea; they are bending and roaring and golden leaves fly. Autumn is speaking. She is speaking. The sound fills my blood. But I can’t understand it. I can no longer leap to the sky to follow her song.
Why do we forget so much of our wild days? How do we lose the language of the wind?
Why can’t we talk of it, even to others who have survived?
I remember how it felt to skim my fingers along the bellies of clouds. To taste starlight and frost. To feel my heart turn ice-cold.
I remember the Queen as she rode. Her hair streaming white and silver in the moonlight, but streaked with flame. Her laughter, cold and ringing.
“She has a level head,” Rick says of our daughter, and I pray that he’s right. That she’s more his daughter than mine. For if the Queen had given me the choice, I would have said Yes; I would have followed her back to her home in an instant.
I count the days down. Alone in my house, I draw the curtains closed and don’t go to the woods again.
For two weeks in mid-autumn, the Hunt rides. Fourteen days, during which the moon waxes from its thinnest sliver to its full light. Each night the sound of the Hounds baying. The songs and cries of the Wild Ones.
During these last days, I do what I can to pull my family close. I make popcorn after dinner. I coax Rick and Amy to the living room with a movie. I pull out an old board game Amy loves. I try to keep us up late, together against the night.
“Let her go,” Rick whispers to me when Amy rolls her eyes, when she yawns and says that she’s tired and going to bed.
I cling to him to quell the shaking inside.
The wind is so strong now. I’m long past my wild years. I settled down before Amy was born. I’m a middle-aged woman in the suburbs, a wife and mother. Old and earth-bound. But when the wind calls, I feel like it might blow me away, too.
On the last night of the Hunt, against all custom, I go outside to watch.
High above, I see it ride. Flashes of light through the clouds. Moonlight mixed with darkness.
And I know that Rick is right—there is nothing I can do. If she’s picked, Amy will make her own choice.
The clouds part, and the Hunt swoops down. I see the milk-white Hounds, their red eyes burning. The Wild Ones shining, moonlight in their faces and their hair trailing sparks of flame. Their calls so high and piercing. And between Hounds and Wild Ones, flitting and diving in shadows, are the children.
They all sweep toward me, and the noise is deafening. I feel the wind on my face. I see the Queen, her face cold and inhumanly beautiful. I almost make out the moonlit faces of the children. I see their nightgowns fluttering, their flannel pajamas and t-shirts.
The Hunt swirls above my head, then stills.
The Queen lifts her hand, and one by one, the children leave. I see their shadow-figures slipping away toward the dark houses below them. They’re going home. Is Amy among them? Amy—
The Queen turns and looks directly at me. She extends her hand.
At last, I understand.
I stare into her shining eyes and know that it’s not too late, after all. I’m not too old. I have this second chance.
I hear Amy’s voice: “Mom!” But if I reach for the Queen’s hand, I’ll fly again. I’ll ride the winds. I’ll be forever wild.
From her home in western Michigan, Vanessa Fogg dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures. She spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology and now works as a freelance medical writer. She is fueled by green tea. For a complete bibliography and more, visit her website at www.vanessafogg.com.